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Features & Articles

Q&A: Sudanese writer RaMa on gender, revolution and democracy

  • Arts and Humanities
  • Global
  • Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences

In April 2019, outside of army headquarters in Khartoum, Sudan, more than 800,000 people sang, chanted and cheered. They made art, hosted discussion circles and camped on the tarmac. They erected makeshift tents, dragged mattresses into the street and refused to budge.

It was a culmination of several years of organized protest and four continuous months of demonstrations in every major city in Sudan. On the sixth day of the sit-in, Omar al-Bashir, the genocidal dictator who had overseen ethnic cleansing in Darfur and reigned for 30 uninterrupted years, was removed from power.

In that brief moment of victory, direct action prevailed. But in that same moment, as the people of Sudan celebrated and took the next step toward building a new government, one protester — an acclaimed journalist and novelist who goes by the pen name RaMa — was unable to cheer alongside her countrymen.

After years of organizing resistance committees in her community, she had been targeted by the regime and forced to flee. And as Bashir was imprisoned and the tides of change swept through Sudan, she and her young children had only just arrived in Pittsburgh — where she’s still living today, in exile.

RaMa finds sanctuary at City of Asylum, a nonprofit in Pittsburgh’s North Side neighborhood that’s part of an international group of cities dedicated to providing safety for persecuted writers. With the ongoing instability in Sudan, RaMa and her family have remained at City of Asylum, where she lives as a writer-in-residence receiving housing, health care, legal counsel and professional development opportunities.

Since its founding in 2004, City of Asylum has hosted nearly 30 writers and artists, from Huang Xiang to Osama Alomar. The organization also runs a bookstore, a jazz poetry month and other cultural programming. In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year, the group launched a fellowship for Ukrainian writers, who are expected to arrive in the coming months.

In 2019, the University of Pittsburgh partnered with the organization to co-produce its magazine, Sampsonia Way, named after the street that houses the writers. Timothy Maddocks (A&S ’15), a teaching associate professor in the Department of English, coordinates the partnership through Pitt’s Public and Professional Writing program.

“What makes this partnership so special is how it truly empowers both our student writers and the writers living at City of Asylum to tell vital stories about the injustices that shape our world,” said Maddocks.

Over the past two years, a group of Pitt students working on the magazine have spent time collaborating with artists at City of Asylum, including extensive conversations with RaMa to learn about her life in Sudan, her love for literature and her role in helping to organize the grassroots revolution.

The following Q&A has been edited for length and to preserve RaMa’s anonymity. Read the full interview at Sampsonia Way.

Could you tell us a little bit about what it’s like to be a woman in Sudan?

If you are a woman in Sudan, especially prior to the revolution, you don’t have a voice to express yourself or to even argue with your older brother, or your father, or your husband. You just have to be polite and obey everyone. You have to obey your father, to obey your brother, even if he is younger than you. You have to obey your husband, to obey the governor, to obey God, your mother. Everyone. It is like you are not there.

When did you start to become more politically aware of what was happening in your country?

When I was young, my friend and I would say “I wish I was born a boy, so I could come home at midnight or 11 p.m. and no one would ask me where I had been.” We were wishing to be someone else. That was the root of this [grassroots work]. Seeing that, no, I'm not someone else. And I don't accept the situation as it is. And the injustice, of course, it was for women. But, moreover, it was for everyone.

There were three different situations under Omar al-Bashir’s regime that made me more politically aware. One was the Civil War between South Sudan and North Sudan. In 2005, there was a peace agreement that both sides signed. And depending on this agreement, they give the people in the south the right to vote for unity or separation from Sudan. And they voted for separation in 2011.

 Then, there was the Darfur genocide. It started in 2003 when the government armies were starting a war again. The people then armed themselves and started fighting each other. Hundreds of thousands have been killed. And millions have run away and become refugees, either in neighboring countries next to that area or other countries all over the world. And, finally, the third situation occurred in the Nuba Mountain and Blue Nile regions, when the government started to bomb the people and the villages there. It started at different times between those regions. For example, Blue Nile was attacked in 2011. 

But all of those places, over the last 30 years, have never had a very long time of peace. So all of this military rule, I couldn't just watch and not say anything. This is what led me to start doing things, just to create change to make life better for women, of course, and for everyone else.

How did your work within the resistance begin?

My friends and I were asking ourselves: “Why have past revolutions failed?” And we figured out it was because there was no planning for it. There weren’t leaders for it. So we sat, and we said, “Okay, what can we do?” and then we formed this resistance group. Maybe fewer than 10 people would meet in my house. For many years, from late 2013 and till 2018, that root became a tree.

We were writing flyers and distributing them secretly. We were writing very short and very intense messages. We would distribute these flyers at mosques, at markets and everywhere. Whenever there was a gathering of people, we would throw them the flyers, preparing people just to know that some people were working for the revolution and justice. 

We would also write on walls. We knew that whatever we were doing there, of course, it would not change the regime in the capital, but at least this we could do. And eventually it just became a thing, and in any city, you can find a group like us. We came to call them resistance committees. Like the fire that comes from a little bit of flames. We were that spark for ourselves, for our spirits, and for others.

[Read RaMa’s poem “How Dare I?” which was inspired by the Vanka murals in Pittsburgh’s Millvale borough.]

How did it feel for you to be so instrumental to such a huge movement?

There was a lot of fear and a lot of insecurity because before the revolution we would hold the meetings in our house, in my family’s house. So we had a very difficult time. When we had meetings, I would ask someone from our group to go and sit in the main street as a lookout because the security forces came in certain cars. If they saw anything, they would call me, so everyone could go very quickly. 

At any moment, you could be arrested. Later, it got so bad that my girls and I had to go to live somewhere else for a while. We would walk on the street, and we didn't know if we would come back to our houses or not. If we had a meeting somewhere, when we were finished no one could go by himself or herself. Even at door knocks we would yell “Go, go, go and hide!”

From our group, four of us had been arrested. One of them stayed in jail for one month and endured all of this torturing. And of course, more were arrested during the street demonstrations. You could be jailed for anywhere from two months to several days. One of the men was a teacher in a city in the east. They impaled him with something, and he died in jail. We knew at any moment this could happen for any one of us. There was so much fear, so much insecurity, so much unsafety.

How has the revolution changed people’s lives in their day to day?

When the transitional government took power, the people began to sense more freedom. They can express themselves. They can build this democracy that we didn't have for 30 years. Life started getting better. It didn't fully get better. Some laws have been changed for women. They stopped the female genital mutilation, and they were working to make changes to the laws that were against women.

There are also some negative things that happened. There is somewhat of an economic crisis. For a country that has been, for so long, a dictatorship, to go in the right direction you have to struggle just to move things from here to there until you get in the right direction. But yes, we had more freedom, we had laws starting to change for the benefit of women and there is more freedom in the media. And, of course, people could go on the streets, and no one would kill them. This was so good. But now we're going back again, to the same period, the same awful situation. In October of 2021, the military made a coup and regained power — and began the cycle of oppression and control all over again.  

With the struggle carrying forward, how do you sustain the revolutionary energy?  

We will do whatever for however long it takes. We just want a civilian government. We are fighting for democracy, and we want to rebuild our country from the beginning, so the resistance committees have become stronger, more solid and more organized.

We are not looking at just now. We're looking forward to many years later. We want to rebuild this country from the beginning and get rid of any military involvement in the political life in Sudan. We will rebuild our country again and correct all the mistakes since our independence — and just get out of this circle. We call it the “evil circle.'' Revolution. Transition government. Coup. Revolution. Transition government. Coup. We want to break this circle. This “evil circle.” Even to just have this idea in this collective mind. That is a huge benefit.


Students Hailey Palubicki, Hannah Woodruff, Sandy Fairclough, Olivia Orebaugh, Kate Rempe and Emily Rothermel contributed to this conversation. Photography by Faiz Abubakr Mohamed.